CHICAGO - A federal judge sentenced former Ald. Ricardo Munoz to 13 months in prison on Thursday for stealing nearly $38,000 from the Chicago Progressive Reform Caucus to pay for personal expenses, including skydiving and a relative’s college tuition.
Munoz pleaded guilty in September to wire fraud and money laundering, admitting he took the money.
Before pronouncing sentence, U.S. District Judge John Kness had said if he allowed Munoz to avoid prison, the community "would draw the wrong message, and a negative message."
He added: "People need to get the message that public figures are held to a higher standard. And if you didn’t want to be held to a higher standard, you shouldn’t run six times for alderman."
Prosecutors said late last year that Munoz still owed $6,891 to the caucus, and the judge ordered him to pay that amount.
The guilty plea from Munoz, who represented the 22nd Ward, made him the latest in a long line of City Council members convicted of federal crimes. Patrick Daley Thompson was convicted by a federal jury just last month, costing him his seat on the council, where he represented the 11th Ward.
Meanwhile, Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) and Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) remain on the council despite being charged in still-pending federal indictments.
Before he learned his sentence Thursday, Munoz fought back tears while speaking to Kness at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. Though Munoz first mentioned his children, and then his work representing the 22nd Ward, he became most emotional as he said, "what I did was wrong. I am ashamed. I’m now a convicted felon."
"I humbly ask for leniency," Munoz said. "My life has changed drastically."
Munoz defense attorney Richard Kling argued for a light sentence earlier this year, noting Chicago’s federal courts "see governor after governor, legislator after legislator, alderman after alderman, county board member after board member, continuing to engage in the same behavior," suggesting that sending Munoz to prison won’t deter the next corrupt politician.
That prompted federal prosecutors, who asked for a one-year prison sentence for Munoz, to respond that "public officials … need to know that when they break the law, they will be held accountable."
They quoted the words of U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman during the 2014 sentencing of former Cook County Commissioner Joseph Mario Moreno. During that hearing, Feinerman said the way to "affect the cost-benefit analysis" is "to impose more severe penalties."
Moreno got 11 years in prison.
The judge questioned Kling and Assistant U.S. Attorney Morris Pasqual about that argument Thursday. Kling agreed that Munoz should be held to a higher standard, though he insisted Munoz didn’t need to be sent to prison.
But Pasqual said, "the public has a right — society has a right — to demand a higher standard from public officials."
Munoz announced his retirement from the City Council in 2018. Before he pleaded guilty last year, he told the judge he considers himself to be "retired" rather than unemployed.
He originally faced 15 wire fraud counts and one money laundering count in the indictment filed against him in April 2021. It accused him of trying to cover his tracks by repaying the money he took from the reform caucus or by claiming it was for "consulting" or "Election Day expenses."
Munoz’s plea agreement alleges he took $37,891 from the caucus, including $16,000 he transferred in October 2016 to a joint account he held with a family member. He then used $15,254 from the joint account to pay tuition to an out-of-state university.
Munoz later obtained a federal Parent Plus loan and then paid $16,000 back to the caucus.
He also bought jewelry from Louis Vuitton, women’s clothing from Nordstrom, three Apple iPhones and Chicago Bulls tickets with money from the caucus, according to the plea agreement.
Munoz made $10,560 in cash withdrawals from the progressive caucus account in November and December 2018, including while he was on vacation in New York in late November 2018, it said.
Federal authorities famously raided Burke’s City Hall and ward offices Nov. 29, 2018, a move that first revealed the feds’ public corruption investigations, which are still ongoing.
But between November 2018 and February 2019, Munoz used the progressive caucus debit card to spend a total of $1,400 on a Southwest Airlines ticket from Los Angeles to Chicago for an acquaintance, Los Angeles Kings hockey tickets, a stay at the Los Angeles Crowne Plaza hotel, and at Lover’s Lane in West Dundee.
In March 2019, the plea agreement said, a contractor asked Munoz for the progressive caucus’ account balance so it could be reported at a meeting. Munoz told the contractor in an Apple iMessage the account had $11,000 in it.
It really had $94.79, according to the plea agreement.